The sun always reached the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba before Havana city and its famous neighborhoods. The same happened with trova and the Casa de la Trova, with son and the best rum of the world. Santiagueros are very proud of their things and their memories.
The story I tell you is part of that pride. It’s just an intimate, personal look, from my deepest Habanero’s memories, to that permanent symbol of the music of Santiago and of Cuba that is La Vieja Trova Santiaguera.
I take the liberty to write about such distinguished people because I had the chance to get to know them very well. I toured half the world with them. I was their manager and, more than that, I’ve always been certain that we were great friends. That’s why, almost 30 years after the idea, after the seed was born, I feel like sharing some details of the life of this group.
Those interested in knowing – many around the world- have the right to know from an actual and reliable source. There are many stories about its foundation, its musicians, its creators, and many experiences during their active period as a music band.
From the first idea to selection of the musicians
Late 1991, I was working in the Cuban TV when I started my first steps as artistic manager and organizer of concerts in Havana. Those were very hard years for the Cuban economy, and its institutions began to change their criteria in terms of commercial relations, since some facts –like the need to be self-financed- became a reality. That’s how the concept of “marketing” (an English term), weird to our ear, was introduced in the economic discourse. But most importantly, it had to be put into in practice.
At that moment, the Cuban TV was open to do business with anything related to art expressions they worked with every day, and start using the resources they had, but would not make use of. Such was the case of the studios for radio and music recording.
Of course, music was a prime goal, but even though there were musicologists and specialists in the music newsrooms, there were no professionals qualified to do this new kind of marketing.
By late ’92, the Basque promoter Jon Intxaustegi showed up in Cuba. He worked at the Bilbao TV and was producing a series about Caribbean rhythms. He was trying to find the best institution to channel his ideas for the episode on Cuban music.
He went to the ICRT (Cuban Institute for Radio and Television), where he was welcomed by the vice-president and a group of specialists.
Intxaustegi shared that he had been to Santiago de Cuba and had heard the most authentic musicians he ever remembered in his life as a promoter, and that they would be perfect for that episode of the series.
The ICRT was eager to do business, and the specialists saw a very clear opportunity in this project. As a result of the talks, the ICRT agreed to carry out the shooting of the episode and manage permits and documentation required. In this case, it was quite a workload.
In addition, the ICRT would record an album with the group to be released with the episode of the series.
During his trip to Santiago de Cuba, Intxaustegi contacted Luisa Blanco, director of the Casa de la Trova, and the remarkable musician and composer Enrique Bonne, who was the Culture representative in the province at the time. As it was said before, if there is something abundant in Santiago, that is trova, son, serenades, tireless and everlasting bohemian life. It was not hard to find the oldest and most authentic musicians that performed with different traditional groups of great relevance in the province.
- Pancho Cobas La O. (Guitar and second voice. 80 years old).
- Aristóteles Limonta Alvarez. (Double-bass. 80 years). Both from Quartet Patria.
- Amado Machado Hechevarría. (Maracas. 81 years old).
- Reynaldo Creagh Veranes. (Singer and claves. 74 years old). Both from the Estudiantina Invasora.
- Aristónico Nápoles. (Cuatro. 73 years old).
The music project
The next step was to get a person from the ICRT to put it all together and carry out the production. There were no volunteers.
Then, someone remembered some Jorge Luis, who worked in the Doubling and Subtitling department, and operated as a freelance artistic manager and producer on the weekends. They called me and explained the whole project, and of course I accepted!
I requested to be sent to Santiago de Cuba to meet these musicians face-to face, explain to them what this project was about, and get their opinions and their willingness to travel to Havana at once to start working as soon as possible.
For the recording of the album that would be released with the series, we needed a music producer from Santiago de Cuba. So they called Demetrio Muñíz, a quite resourceful musician who gained much respect as a producer of risky projects. As a matter of fact, he was actually from Havana. He was appointed anyway. A few days later, we were introduced.
Go ahead!!!, they told us… or maybe we told ourselves so.
While I continued with some office work and Demetrio elaborated recording strategies, I visited Enrique Bonne, who had come to Havana for a few days. I told him about the album and about a possible promotion tour. I thought the right person to lead those musicians of such advanced age was him, because he was one of the most respected musicians in Santiago and had a vast experience in all kinds of events. Bonne said “no” right away. He said he would have liked to, but he was not in good health. We were in the middle of the Special Period in Cuba.
A few days later I travelled to Santiago de Cuba to meet the group. It was a unique experience. We agreed to meet at the TV offices of Santiago de Cuba and they arrived, one by one, with the calmness of their age and their physical condition. I presented them with a box of cigars and a bottle of Havana Club rum.
We talked in a very relaxed atmosphere, but I was really excited. It was a true adventure for me. Just imagine, I was only 31 years old at the moment and was organizing a quintet whose members summed up almost 400 years.
They suggested an audition I did not request. They had prepared a repertoire of boleros and sones of a lifetime. With the first sounds, I knew something special was happening to me. From the very first tunes, they already had me at their feet. It was the most wonderful concert I had by those five Quixotes.
I came back to Havana to discuss what I’d heard with Demetrio. The initial idea of recording and dubbing their voices with younger musicians looking for better quality of performance and recording time was off the table right away.
From Santiago de Cuba to Habana
In moments of crisis, managing the simplest thing can be “painful”. The “boys” would arrive in Havana and we had to find a decent place for them to stay. Then, we could lodge them at the so-called Guests House of the ICRT. They would sleep, eat and rehearse there. I am not going into details regarding the problems we sorted out, particularly to feed them in accordance to their ages. With some arguments, combined actions, well-known efficient strategies, it all worked out pretty well.
They arrived in Havana. Then, I understood why more experienced producers refused to engage in the project.
The walking knights from Santiago de Cuba landed in Havana International Airport. And just by going through the first glass door Aristóteles Limonta, who travelled sick and with an unstable blood pressure, stumbled with the door and fell. I was at the brink of a heart attack.
I could not celebrate their arrival at the Guests House. Instead, I settled for a companion’s chair at the ER in “Calixto García” Hospital. I stayed all night with Aristóteles.
As he opened his eyes the next morning, his face looked better and I started to get to know his gift for comedy. He was a very nice guy, always in a good mood, joker and a story teller with thousands of anecdotes to tell. His first words were: “I need some milk, compay!”
Milk, at that time, was an “extinct” product. The only thing I could think of was to run to my place and take some of my daughter’s milk, who was three years old then, and take it back to the hospital.
Aristóteles got well in five days and he could meet with his comrades, who waited eagerly to start rehearsing. From that moment on, we met every day in the morning session until it was time for dinner in order to select the repertoire that would be suggested for the album. Then, it was time to introduce Demetrio Muñíz.
When Demetrio heard them, he immediately confirmed what we had agreed on. They were more than capable of shining with their own light.
The international launching of the project
By suggestion of Jon Intxaustegi, and using the only fax machine of the ICRT, located at the president’s office, I contacted Manuel Domínguez, Grenadian record producer stationed in Madrid.
Domínguez had just started a new independent record company called Nubenegra. He had graduated as an architect and had a great artistic nose. I told him about the project he was already acquainted with thanks to Intxaustegi, and he showed interest right away. It turned out he was a student of the Cuban music, especially the traditional, and he knew its exponents from Santiago de Cuba very well.
I also sent him, via fax, the four songs that “los viejitos” (as we fondly used to call them) were proposing for their first demo. They would use neither old nor new music arrangements. They would simply go with the ones of any trova night in Santiago, because it was there, at the Casa de la Trova, where jam sessions happened after “formal” performances. There, no one was part of a particular group and every one belonged to all groups. That’s how they saw the demo of the album.
The songs were part of a very well-known repertoire by famous authors: La Esperanza by Pepe Sánchez; Bésame mucho by Consuelo Velázquez; La última noche with lyrics by Orlando Leopoldo Rodríguez Fierro and music by pianist Bobby Collazo; Son de la loma by Miguel Matamoros.
The final line-up
A good day of July 1993, I arrived at the Guests House and found Aristónico Nápoles waiting at the terrace outside. He came closer as if to share a secret: “Hey, Jorge Luis, I have to tell you something”. Of course I was really worried because he was so serious. Then he told me the night before he had a dream in which he was fighting a man, and this man was beating him up. He moved so much in his bunker bed that he fell to the floor and got a small cut in his eyebrow. With the same seriousness he told me: “And Jorge, I want you to know that I’m looking forward to lying down and dreaming today and see if I can find this guy, because today I’ll be the one to beat him up”. I laughed so hard at it, but it seemed he was paving the way to get where he wanted.
He did not want to continue with the project because he missed his home. Travelling so far was not a thing he enjoyed; and Havana was only 960 km away from Santiago de Cuba! If things worked out, leaving the country was not something he dreamt of or thought of as a good idea. He asked me, with obvious anguish, to replace him by another musician and to take him back to Santiago de Cuba.
Around that time, we were given the chance to perform on a TV musical show. I promised Aristónico that, as soon as we did the show, I’d send him to Santiago de Cuba and would find a replacement.
We met with the other four musicians. Pancho Cobas La O had been assigned to be the director of the group (with no name yet). At the meeting he talked about his cousin Reinaldo Hierrezuelo La O, known as the King of Caney, by then 67 years old and retired as the rest of them.
He was considered a king of Cuban musicians and composers due to his successful career alongside his brother Lorenzo in the mythical duet Los Compadres, where he had replaced no other than Compay Segundo. Pancho told us there was no better choice because Reinaldo was a connoisseur and experienced performer of traditional music and old trovadores’ work as well. Besides, he was an excellent guitarist, bassist and player of an instrument similar to Compay Segundo’s, one he used to call “Armónico or Armonioso”.
Immediately, we went to Reinaldo Hierrezuelo’s place, who lived in Havana. Although he had already been talked about other important projects, the idea of playing with Pancho in the same group was an illusion of his in the twilight of his extraordinary artistic career.
The first concert on a TV show
The next day, I took Hierrezuelo to the Guests House so that he could study the repertoire and arrange it his way. But the TV show date was close. For things to go well, we thought it was best if Aristónico did it. That way, Reinaldo would be in better shape to finish arranging the whole repertoire.
Eventually, instead of the quintet, all of them, including Hierrezuelo playing maracas and güiro, performed at the TV show.
At the time they were rehearsing for the program I was facing two challenges that seemed to be over my head: I was trying to get a ticket for Aristónico back to Santiago de Cuba and arranging to have a suit made for each of them at the ICRT tailor’s shop.
A good friend at the Fondo de Bienes Culturales in Havana got me a roll of celeste blue muslin, the only available he could give me. To complete the suit I had to procure/invent 6 black belts, 6 pairs of black socks, 6 pairs of black shoes, 6 long-sleeve white shirts and 6 red ties. Since there was no other color for the suit, we completed the outfit using the colors of the national flag with no ideological intention whatsoever. We made it!
The day of the show arrived. Everything worked smoothly. Watching them play and sing live confirmed the quality of those gentlemen, their authenticity and the huge possibilities they had if the album and the series were to be released.
The series never happened! But that TV show was, let’s say, the test of the project.
Aristónico went back to Santiago. Reinaldo Hierrezuelo took over, and by suggestion of Pancho, he became the director of the group. Sometimes we discussed the name of the quintet during our daily meetings, but we never reached an agreement.
Without Spanish series or name, we continued with the task at hand.
The first recording and the first record deal
In the summer of 1993 we started recording the demo at Studio 2 of Radio Rebelde, one of the best ICRT studios, but still not a match to international standards. There we had 8-hour-work days in which we did not stop learning from the experience of these men, and were constantly laughing at their funny remarks and anecdotes, always with the presence of rum.
I would pick them up every day at the Guests House and take them to the studio. After spending some time with them and Demetrio collaborating on spelling correction, diction and checking the lyrics of the songs, I used the time left to manage meals, transportation and any other need that usually comes up on this kind of work on a daily basis, even under typical conditions, though those times were nothing like normal.
At the same time we started with some photo sessions. What you could call quite a show!
Taking advantage of how close we were to Radio Taíno, we showed up at some show every now and then. By the way, it was the only station that had a show dedicated to the trova of Santiago de Cuba. For the rest of the media, the Cuban bands with more broadcast (practically the only ones) were those of more contemporary music dance format, closer to what was known as salsa. The indifference towards traditional music was more than obvious.
We finished the first demo for Manuel Domínguez and we sent it to Madrid.
Manuel had no doubts and so he told us. He knew he had a rough diamond in his hands and decided to go ahead with the recording. He sent other song titles to complete the repertoire.
As it was the procedure at the time, I put him in contact with the Commercialization Office of the ICRT to complete the paperwork for the recording contract. The deal was a lot more promising than I had imagined. It even included the production of three albums.
If this was something beyond my imagination, for that group of venerable men was like a chimera. A dream impossible to dream at their ages. A gift? An award to the effort of a lifetime? Of all their lives together?
They were in front of me. I explained it to them as if I was trying to convince myself that it was true. They looked at each other and their look was pretty articulated “with our age, who knows if we’ll make it!” After a complicit silent, one of them said: “We’ll go ahead”. “We’ll meet even in the year 2000!”
He said it as if the wait would last a century.